Valdosta Daily Times

Local Sports

April 17, 2014

Atlanta lands MLS expansion team for 2017

Atlanta — Arthur Blank donned traditional soccer garb to mark his newest venture — an MLS team for Atlanta.

“I love this one,” Blank said, looking down at the red, black and gold scarf draped over his dark suit. “I haven’t taken it off since it was given to me. I may not sleep in it tonight, but I may. I haven’t decided yet.”

Major League Soccer announced its latest team Wednesday, an expansion team for Atlanta that will begin play in 2017 at the city’s new retractable roof stadium.

The team will be owned by Blank, who also controls the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. He said it was the culmination of a process that started about a decade ago, when he first started talks with MLS about bringing a team to the city.

The off-and-on discussions picked up again after Blank reached a deal with the city last year to build a new $1 billion downtown stadium next to the soon-to-be-demolished Georgia Dome. He is putting up most of the money, with the city kicking in $200 million from a hotel tax.

“I think Atlanta is a natural fit for Major League Soccer,” said Blank, who was serenaded by a burgeoning fan group that calls itself “Terminus Legion,” a reference to the city’s former name.

The team’s name has not been determined. Blank said he will get input from the fans before deciding on the new moniker, though he already knows the colors: red and black — matching the Falcons — with a substantial amount of gold as well.

“What the name will be, we really don’t know,” he said. “We will spend a lot of time listening to our fans and trying to understand why some names are more important than others, why certain designs are more important than others, why certain logos are more important than others.”

One name that won’t be considered: Atlanta Chiefs, the name of two previous teams that played in the old North American Soccer League. While the Chiefs won the first NASL championship in 1968, both versions struggled financially and eventually folded.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said there was no hesitation about putting a team in Atlanta once Blank worked out a stadium deal.

It is the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and the biggest without a top-level soccer team. The city has a large Hispanic population and last month drew more than 68,000 fans to the Georgia Dome for a friendly between Mexico and Nigeria.

“This is something that will help elevate our league,” Garber said. “It will also elevate our sport in the entire Southeast, which is something that is very important to us strategically.”

The league went all out to tout its newest team. Hundreds of fans turned out for a street festival before Blank and Garber arrived by helicopter for the introductory news conference, touching down on the roof of a downtown hotel overlooked Centennial Olympic Park. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also attended.

While the new stadium is primarily designed for the Falcons, Blank stressed that it will be soccer-friendly. The stands along the sideline will have the capability to retract, accommodating the larger soccer pitch while maintaining sightlines.

Curtains will descend from the roof automatically to close off the upper sections, creating the sort of intimate atmosphere that works better for less-attended MLS games.

The new facility is designed to seat about 71,000 for NFL games, Blank said, but can be reduced to about 29,000 for soccer using only the lower bowl.

“There will never be an MLS game in Atlanta where NFL lines are shown on the field,” Blank said, drawing a big cheer.

MLS, which has 19 teams this season, is expanding rapidly with a goal of having 24 teams by the end of the decade. Orlando and New York City are scheduled to begin play next season, and the league has awarded a provisional team in Miami to a group led by David Beckham, contingent on a soccer-specific stadium being built.

The league has added five teams in the past five years, including the hugely successful Seattle Sounders. Garber said there is no worry about growing too fast given the abundance of soccer talent around the world.

“When we expand, we can pick from players around the world,” Garber said. “We could change the roster rules, the international player limits, and have no dilution in talent.”

Blank said he will try to encourage some crossover between Falcons’ season-ticket holders and those interested in attending MLS games. But he acknowledged the teams are likely to have very different fan bases, making it clear the new soccer team will not merely be a side business for the Falcons.

His first priority is to hire a team president for the MLS venture. He will also be exploring possible locations for a state-of-the-art training facility.

“We don’t want any stepchildren in our family,” Blank said. “We want to make sure the people running soccer get up in the morning thinking about soccer and go to bed thinking about soccer.”

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